In this leadership class don't expect to the professor to teach.
A hundred students sit in a room waiting for the course to begin. At exactly 10 o'clock the professor stands to read his introductory notes: You will not be late. You will not eat in class. Everything is being taped for your record. You will not disclose what happens in this room to anyone else.Skip to next paragraph
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He then falls silent. A minute passes. The students become increasingly uncomfortable. Another minute ticks by.
Eventually a student musters the courage to speak. "Perhaps we should use this time to discuss our thoughts on world affairs," she suggests. Silence. "I've heard too much about that topic," someone else replies. The proposal has failed. More silence.
This is a typical scene from Leadership 101, a course to prepare tomorrow's movers and shakers for the risks of trying to lead.
The unconventional technique is fast gaining respectability in both the public and private spheres, thanks largely to the efforts of Harvard University's Ronald Heifetz, a former lecturer in psychiatry who has adapted methods used in group therapy into a classroom setting. His second book on the subject, "Leadership on the Line," written with Marty Linsky, was published earlier this year.
Dr. Heifetz doesn't think of leaders as individuals with the ability to influence or persuade others. Instead, he wants to help people work through particularly difficult issues, or what he terms "adaptive challenges."
"An adaptive challenge," he explains, "is a problem that can't be rectified by simply drawing on your existing repertoire of solutions."
Students sitting in the classroom, nervously watching their silent professor, are faced with an adaptive challenge. They want to learn about leadership, but the teacher is not playing ball. Their usual responses are suddenly inadequate. To solve this problem they will need to invent and discover new ways of learning.
Reactions to this pedagogical style cover the gamut. "People who like order may move immediately to try to create some sort of structure," explains Heifetz. "Others may thrive in chaos and attempt to upset the equilibrium even more."
However, certain behaviors emerge with surprising predictability. The professor will frequently be criticized for "refusing to teach." Feeling betrayed, exasperated, or just plain bored, students may start to break the simple rules laid out at the start, arriving late, or perhaps bringing lunch to pass the time as the class endlessly debates how it should proceed.
For some, the monotony is broken only when an argument erupts or when the professor sparks a discussion by playing a film or piece of music.
The semester-long course is peppered with unusual components. Weekly meetings bring five or six students together to analyze examples of "leadership failure" chosen from their own experiences. And then there's the mysterious "music night," an evening event at which students are asked to read a poem or story that "plucks their heartstrings" and then vocalize their feelings in a song literally to enable them to "connect with the group."
But the twice-weekly "large-group meeting" when the 100 students come together is where the real action happens.
After a couple of weeks, the group begins to use itself as its own case study. The complaints, the gestures of dissent, the arguments everything becomes fodder for further discussion and influences the ever-shifting dynamics. Why do certain people have more influence than others? How do some get sidelined while others get their way?
The professor acts as a moderator, but occasionally adds his own insights. By examining the group's behavior, students learn about leadership through experience rather than by rote.
At Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where the course has been taught by Heifetz and his team for 18 years, it has earned itself a somewhat schizophrenic reputation: To some, it's the best professional development program in existence; to others, it ranks with staying in bed as a sensible use of time and tuition fees.